Questions from Readers
How do you know that God is Just Love?
Ken, how did this become heart instead of just head knowledge?
(What follows is the sixth of an eleven-part series that is one answer to these questions.)
I began writing this story in the year 2013. I returned from Hungary and Romania exactly 31 years ago when I was 31 years old. I have been telling Romania and Hungary stories frequently for half my life.
Everyone has life accounts they do not tell. I have never shared the following facet of my preaching experience in Eastern Europe, maybe because it makes me appear to shine too brightly when others are the real heroes. Nonetheless, I will share this story as I lived it. Why? Because I experienced God as vitally and purposefully present.
Please remember, I came to Eastern Europe well-armed for preaching, having been guided and inspired in my conversation with Bob Williams to prepare three messages on specifically revealed topics. In sharing in other stories some aspects of a couple of preaching experiences in Eastern Europe, I did not point out a common factor in all three preaching events. None of them were supposed to happen.
While traveling on the bus towards Hungary, Reinhold Kerstan outlined for the group exactly what we would be expected to contribute to worship, either by way of giving a testimony or by preaching. Some of the preachers had already been chosen for particular pulpits.
Early, on our first day in Hungary, we divided into three groups so we could visit as many churches as possible. We came together for lunch and dinner but split up for worship at different churches in the evening. In the middle of the morning we were told to have a group meeting to decide who would be speaking that evening. Though we did not know it, a prominent evangelist in our small group had been pre-selected to preach at one of the largest Baptist Churches in Hungary. However, he had stayed back at the hotel because of illness and I was the only one present that wanted to preach that evening. The die was cast, and though the intended preacher was healthy by mid-day, Reinhold declined to overrule our group’s decision. So it was that I preached the first evening we were in Hungary. Preaching in Hungary was exciting and uplifting.
It was impossible for me not to notice the contrast between reality as presented by Reinhold and the reality God had revealed to me. Reinhold’s expectations were that each person who wanted to deliver a sermon would have the chance to do so–once.
The message I had heard from God was to prepare three distinct sermons, two that were essentially pastoral and one that was primarily prophetic. That’s what I did. Wherever we went, I carried my preaching notebook and my journal with me, despite the fact that I already had my turn the first day in Hungary.
How in the world did I end up in the pulpit of a Romanian Baptist Church in Timisoara a few days later when the president of a Southern Baptist college had already been assigned that duty? Well, my visit to the home of Titi and Ligia Bulzan had caused more than a little furor and had put Titi at some serious risk of being persecuted by the “Ministry of Cults” or the secret police. Early the next morning Titi came over to our hotel—he was to be our translator that day—and asked Reinhold Kerstan to help him create a credible cover story for himself that explained my secretive visit to his home the night before. The essence of this loosely fabricated tale was that I had gone to his home to work on the sermon that he would be translating the next day. Reinhold agreed to support this subterfuge and as I got on the bus he notified me that I would be preaching on 1 Peter at 11:00 A.M.
The third sermon I prepared was based on the Old Testament Prophet Habbakuk, who has some severe things to say about corruption and injustice. Habbakuk begins:
Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
CHAPTER 1:5 & 2:3––God answers:
Look at the nations, and see!
Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
that you would not believe if you were told.
Though it linger, wait for it;
It will certainly come and will not delay.
After about a week of travel across Romania, we were approaching Brassov, where Pastor Mara, President of the Baptist Union, served. Having met and listened to dozens of Baptists, most of us had begun drawing conclusions concerning the Baptist leaders who seemed trustworthy and those we suspected were puppets of the Ministry of Cults. Mara was highly suspect. He seemed to have a harsh and dogmatic and deeply insecure personality. His church building was brand new and architecturally exciting but only the very old attended worshiped there. By this time, Reinhold Kerstan and I had had some frank discussion on these matters and between his insights, the wisdom of Bob Williams and my own observations, I believed that I was getting a pretty good read on the political realities of Baptist life in Romania. So I told Reinhold that though I’d been given more than my share of opportunities, I had strongly felt God’s leading to prepare a prophetic message from Habbakuk. And this seemed like the time to preach it.
Two preachers, both presidents of their respective denominations in the United States, were scheduled to preach at Mara’s church. But some kind of conflict developed that negated this plan. So it was that just before supper, Reinhold came knocking on my hotel room door and with a broad grin asked me, “Is Habbakuk ready to be heard?” Habbakuk was ready but there was a point in the pulpit that evening when I realized there was genuine risk in preaching Habbakuk. Having just finished the sermon’s introduction, our translator, a young man about 25 years old, began looking at me with dubious wonderment. With the slightest smile I assured him that I had said what I intended to say. He knew, as I knew, that this Word of the Lord needed to be heard by someone, personally. Who could know what consequences would come of this and who would pay the price? Probably not me. During the Preaching Mission I began a mutually affirming friendship with a Southern Baptist pastor from rural Georgia. He whispered to me, after the service, “I didn’t realize you were wearing a bullet proof vest.”
(By the way, this prophetic word was not a word of final condemnation. As in the days of Jonah, no one’s fate was sealed. Anyone could change and be redeemed. Only God fully understood the motives of his servants. God is always inviting his children to return home. Still, God does what is necessary for the Word to be announced and heard.)
You probably realize–I hope it is obvious–that for me preaching a prophetic word to church leaders who appeared to have sold out to communism was an act of obedience to God but was not so much an act of courage. In a few days I would leave Romania. Future relationships with Romanian Baptists would be in the hands of Reinhold Kerstan and his colleagues at the Baptist World Alliance. Our translators and our new and courageous Baptist friends would continue to live within the strictures of a socialist state that had decided, for political reasons, to appear friendly towards the evangelicals, for the time being. But danger continued to lurk around every corner. In a few more days, the peril would end for me but for the most faithful among Romanian Baptists the threats would not soon diminish. (To be continued next week.)